Help Make HIV History

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I've always dreamed of being a midwife in sub-Saharan Africa but since I pass out when my dog gets a vaccination, I realized that maybe that wasn't my God given calling. However, that doesn't change the fact that I am drawn to and love the women and children in this land. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to shadow an overworked nurse in a rural health clinic in Zambia when I was traveling with the NGO World Vision. She had at least 50 patients lined up to see her before she opened at 9 am. Many of the women in line had walked upwards of four hours just to be seen at the health clinic. Many of those women and children in line were HIV positive.

Nurse Bertha was the only nurse on staff and she worked quickly but listened well as patient after patient would walk through her door. I walked out of the exam room briefly to speak to the women and children who were waiting on the bench outside to be seen. When I returned to Bertha, she was speaking with a woman I will never forget. 

A baby boy sat on the hip of his 30 year old HIV infected mother, tucked snugly inside a pink sling that held him close. I didn't speak the same language, but I could tell that nurse Bertha was very upset with this mother for not bringing her baby into the clinic sooner. Bertha asked several times, why did you not come sooner? This child was 15 months old and from an untrained eye I could see that this child was suffering from malnutrition. Baby Kiston weighed only 11 pounds. A typical toddler his age weighs twice that.

Kiston's mother made several excuses for not bringing her son into the clinic sooner, but with some more questioning, we found that the mother has four children at home and her husband left her when he found out she was HIV positive. Though, he's probably HIV positive himself as well, many men in sub-Saharan Africa see this disease as a curse.  She is doing everything on her own and is struggling to provide and making the hours long walk to the clinic to seek treatment seemed almost impossible until it was nearly too late.

Her last visit to the clinic was months prior when her baby was tested for HIV. After months, the test results had still not come in because they have to be sent out to the hospital in Lusaka for testing several hours away. Getting important test results takes a lot of time in rural Zambia. Bertha confirmed through a physical examination that this baby is more than likely HIV positive just like his mother. 400 children contract HIV and 290 children die of AIDS related illness every day, according to UNAIDS – Children & HIV Fact Sheet July 2016.

The only thing that nurse Bertha could advise for Kiston's mother was for her to gather up some money to take him to Choma an hour drive away to be admitted to the hospital. I could see in this mother's eyes how difficult it would be for her to find the 50 kwacha {about $7 USD} for the round trip car fare to get her child the treatment that he would need. Where would this single HIV infected mother of four find the money?

I saw in her eyes a look of resignation. This mother was desperate to get to the clinic that day that could help her and at this point, her child was too far gone to get the help he needed at this little clinic. I could see that this mother believed that she would go home with her son on her hip and would watch him die a slow death before she buried this little boy.

Sadly, this is a story that repeats itself every single day. After over 30 years, HIV is still here. 30% of people globally who are HIV positive don’t know it. The vast majority of people living with HIV are located in low- and middle- income countries, with an estimated 25.5 million living in sub-Saharan Africa. Among this group 19.4 million are living in East and Southern Africa, which saw 44% of new HIV infections globally in 2016.

In 2016, 1 million people died of HIV-related illnesses globally, according to the World Health Organization. Almost half of these deaths occurred in sub-Saharan Africa.

Treatments for HIV have improved, including a promising possible HIV vaccine being developed by Johnson & Johnson which they announced at this year’s Global Citizen Festival. Treatments that could help children just like Kiston.

Visit Johnson & Johnson's Make HIV History page to create your own video to share so that together we can make HIV history.

I was selected for this opportunity as a member of CLEVER and the content and opinions expressed here are all my own.

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